While the 2008 presidential candidates are busy fielding questions about how they would confront Iran's nuclear ambitions, few seem interested in addressing a much more pressing issue: Pakistan.
It's understandable, of course. Pakistan is an infinitely more difficult challenge for a would-be president to tackle. Unlike Iran - which can be "bombed," "contained," "deterred," or "ignored" - Pakistan does not lend itself to sound bite solutions. It's much easier for candidates to simply ignore our ostensible ally and hope to pass through the campaign without being called on it. But events will almost certainly conspire to deny us the luxury of living in denial for very long.
The truth is Pakistan represents a far greater danger to the U.S. than Iran, at least for the foreseeable future. Let us count the ways. Pakistan is a nuclear power. Iran is not. Pakistan has a proven track record of proliferation, including a dalliance with al Qaeda. It was Pakistani nuclear scientists, after all, who met with bin Laden. Indeed, it was a Pakistani scientist, A. Q. Khan, whose black-market network significantly expanded the reach of nuclear equipment and know-how. Meanwhile, Iranian scientists are still laboring to master the basic elements of the nuclear fuel cycle (though progress continues).
Pakistan was one of three countries prior to 9/11 to recognize and provide significant material support to the Taliban - the one regime whose accommodation made 9/11 possible. Iran opposed the Taliban. Elements within the Pakistani military continue to support rump Taliban elements as they battle NATO and U.S. forces in Afghanistan. The New York Times reported that Pakistani army elements have gone so far as to directly fire on Afghan forces (though Pakistan denies it).
Ideologically, Pakistan is vastly more sympathetic to al Qaeda than Iran. Its religious schools preach the extremist variety of Sunni Islam that animates bin Laden's jihad. While Iran's Shiite theocrats preach "death to America," few Iranians have actually embraced the mantra. There are, for instance, 65 Pakistanis in Guantanamo Bay; there are zero Iranians. Unlike al Qaeda, Iran's Shiite proxy Hezbollah has not embraced mass-causality suicide terrorism against American civilian targets. Indeed, Hezbollah's most significant anti-American strike was against a military target 24 years ago: a Marine barracks in Lebanon.
The single most important element, however, is the presence of a reconstituted al Qaeda leadership network in Pakistan. The country plays host (whether willingly or not) to the architects of the largest massacre on U.S. soil in history: Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri. In contrast, Iran reportedly harbors a small number of lesser al Qaeda figures.
In Senate testimony earlier this year, intelligence chief John Negroponte described Pakistan as a "secure hide-out" within which al Qaeda plots further carnage. In February, the New York Times reported that al Qaeda "had been steadily building an operations hub in the mountainous Pakistani tribal area of North Waziristan" including full-fledged terror training camps. In Waziristan, al Qaeda inhabits a failed state within a functioning, nuclear-armed one.
In sum, the danger to Americans in America is emanating principally from Pakistan, not Iran. What's more, the contours of the Iranian challenge are recognizable. Much like the Soviet Union during the Cold War, Iran's government works against U.S. interests. It is equipping anti-American forces in Iraq and challenging our influence in the Middle East. As damaging as these actions are, they are familiar - we know how to counter and defeat hostile nation states. Moreover, Iran's nuclear program is a challenge unfolding slowly and in plain site.
The Pakistan problem, however, is more complex - a 21st century dilemma combining transnational terror groups, "ungovernable" territory, and a government of uncertain allegiance.
What if the United States suffers another 9/11-scale atrocity that traces its roots to al Qaeda in Pakistan? (If the British had not successfully thwarted the plot to blow up ten airliners over the Atlantic, this would not be a hypothetical.) What, exactly, will the next president do? Do we hold the government of Pervez Musharraf responsible? After all, his "Waziristan Accord" with militant tribes in the Northwest Frontier, which saw Pakistani forces withdraw to barracks, ceded vital territory to al Qaeda. At least some elements in the Pakistani government have trained, and are reportedly still facilitating al Qaeda's presence in the region.
If President Musharraf refuses to seriously confront al Qaeda on his territory after an attack on America, would he let U.S. forces do so? If he does not, should the U.S. invade, or launch large scale military strikes, over his objections? While justified, the risks of such action are severe. It could spark a broader war with the nuclear-armed state. If Musharraf relents or does not intervene forcefully to counter an American action, public outrage would almost certainly boil over. Musharraf has already survived two assassination attempts. For his Islamist enemies, the third time might be the charm. A murdered Musharraf would throw the country and its nuclear weapons into tumult at a moment of maximum anti-Americanism.
Or do we give Pakistan a pass, hoping, as we have with Saudi Arabia, that maintaining close government-to-government ties will ultimately allow us to make the most headway against the jihadist threat? After all, without Pakistan's help the most senior al Qaeda leaders captured to date would still be at large.
It's useful, in this light, to consider the events of September 12, 2001.
On that day, Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage placed a call to Pakistan's intelligence minister and Taliban supporter, General Mahmood who happened to be in Washington D.C. Armitage's mission was as consequential as it was brief. According to the 9/11 Commission, Armitage served notice to the government of Pakistan that its policies had to change. Fast:
Armitage gave Mahmood a list of seven "non-negotiable" demands, among them a requirement that Pakistan end its relationship with the Taliban and grant the U.S. territorial access to conduct operations against al Qaeda. According to the Commission's final report, "Pakistan made its decision swiftly. That afternoon, Secretary of State Powell announced at the beginning of an NSC meeting that Pakistani President Musharraf had agreed to every U.S. request for support in the war on terrorism.
It's interesting to note the tone of the exchange between the two nations suddenly thrust into cooperation. Armitage, in a Frontline interview, gives us a hint:
It was a very brief 15- or 20-minute meeting, where I presented [Mahmood] with the list, read it to him, and told him that this was not a negotiable list; it was all or nothing. He said that he knew how the president thought, and the president would accept these points and was with us. I said, "With all respect, that's not good enough. The president of Pakistan, President Musharraf, must agree to these, and my secretary will be calling in a couple of hours." The secretary called 1:30 or so Eastern time that day, about an hour and 15 or 20 minutes after we'd finished the meeting. President Musharraf agreed to all the conditions, without exception.
President Musharraf claimed that Armitage threatened to "bomb Pakistan back to the stone age" if help was not forthcoming. Armitage disputes that characterization. What is not in dispute is that, after the carnage of 9/11, America served notice to Pakistan.
Could the next president deliver such an ultimatum? Would it be wise to do so?
Before the staggering loss of life on 9/11, attacking al Qaeda in Afghanistan was seen as either too harsh or too daunting a prospect based on the carnage al Qaeda had inflicted to date. It was only when viewed in the light of nearly 3,000 dead that our passivity looked irresponsible. Today, we don't need hindsight to understand that, barring forceful action from Musharraf now, al Qaeda will eventually strike the U.S. again (although a strike is altogether possible even with strong action). At that point, will our Pakistan policy look similarly irresponsible?
Today, the downside costs of strongly pressing Musharraf or attacking al Qaeda in Northwest Pakistan are steep, while the price of our relative inaction has been modest. While several attacks - notably the July 7 London tube bombings - have been traced back to the country, the U.S. and Western allies have preferred to tread lightly with Musharraf, viewing him as the best of a set of bad options. At what point is Musharraf's desultory attitude toward bin Laden no longer acceptable? What can we realistically hope to accomplish if we turn on him?
Iran and Pakistan represent two distinct threats. While we persist in Iraq, Iran will be a direct threat to our troops. Its nuclear program and terrorist network, however, represents less a threat to American lives than to America's influence in the Middle East. For those who wish to maintain that influence at any cost, beating back Iran is a top priority. But for those concerned with securing American lives, Iran is a serious but lesser-order concern.
Pakistan is quite the opposite. The terrorist network on its soil, the uncertain allegiance of its military and intelligence forces, its evident willingness to proliferate, and the precariousness of Musharraf's regime most directly threaten the lives of Americans. The tough questions that surround our Pakistan policy don't get any easier if we ignore them. The people who are vying to lead our country owe us their answers.